Saturday, September 14, 2019

Tom Waits, Heartattack and Vine (classic albums)

[I finally got this one on vinyl today, so let's take a trip down memory lane to 2013, when I wrote this.]

I came to Tom Waits late in life, but like Paul on the road to Damascus, the scales fell from my eyes and I preach Waits' gospel every chance I get.  A friend in college was a Waits disciple too, and always used to play his stuff for me without winning me over.  His music seemed willfully obtuse, his voice abrasive, and none of it really fit with other artists I liked.  My girlfriend in grad school tried to win my soul for the bard of the gutter, and I didn't crack until she loaned me a copy of Heartattack and Vine.

For some reason, it just clicked with me, which is funny considering that is not one of his more highly rated records.  Allmusic only gives it three stars out of five, the second lowest score for any of his albums, and much lower than those that come right after.  Robert Christgau's B grade review is chock full of faint praise.  Released in 1980, it is a transitional album marking Waits' shift from his jazzbo lounge singer persona of the 1970s to his avant garde wildman stage that began in earnest with 1983's revolutionary Swordfishtrombones.  Up until this  point Waits' jazz piano laid the foundation, afterward it would be unorthodox percussion.  On Heartattack and Vine, it's the blues.  I think people don't like this record for the same reason I didn't like Waits for so long: it doesn't fit pre-existing categories.  Maybe that's why it was the one to hook me, it had a quality I lacking in the other stuff I'd heard.

The bluesy nature of the proceedings is apparent when the title track kicks of the record in raucous fashion.  A cutting, drunkenly lumbering guitar staggers into the room, soon accompanied by one of Waits' signature growls.  He uses this to best effect on one of his all time best lines "There ain't no devil, just God when he's drunk."  When I heard this song, his sandpaper and Marlboros voice suddenly made sense to me the way that Howlin' Wolf's similarly unorthodox vocal stylings always had.  Waits' singing is really better suited to blues-based material, and here his voice finally gets the right platform.

Other songs on the record mine the depths of the blues, especially the caustic "Downtown" and perverted "Mr. Siegal."  However, it's a couple of weepy ballads that make this album so great.  The first is "Jersey Girl," a song that has a lot of meaning for me.  I was listening to Waits a lot around the time I met the Jersey girl who would later be my wife.  When Waits says "Nothing else matters in this whole wide world, when you're in love with a Jersey girl" my heart swells.  Beyond my own subjective biases, it really is a fetching ballad, and expresses, without being maudlin, the insane magic of falling in love.  When my wife and I slow-danced to this at our wedding it was probably the happiest I felt that day.

The other ballad is the monumental "On the Nickel," whose title refers to 5th Street in LA (hence "nickel.")  This is skid row, and Waits is singing a lullaby to the men who live there.  The accompanying strings are lush, like something off of a Disney soundtrack, his voice whisperingly tender at the start.  Halfway through it gets low and fearsomely gutteral, as if he is channeling the pain and broken hopes of the men for whom he sings.  By the end if you are not moved, you have no heart.

None of the other songs can match "Heartattack and Vine," "Jersey Girl," or "On the Nickel," but a record with three awe-inspiring songs counts as a classic in my book.  It might not fit the image Waits fans or critics have of him, which is all the more reason to admire it as one of the most confounding works of a charmingly confounding artist.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

9/12 and Failed Tests

In the days after 9/11 I would put this song on and have a good cry

This year the 9/11 anniversary hit me harder than usual. It might be because at my school in NYC there are maybe a handful of students who were alive when in it happened. As fewer people have a living memory, the official memory of the event has now been hijacked by militarism and nationalism. It's become a time for empty patriotic gestures and stupid platitudes. The shock, horror, and human loss are gone.

That event was a test of this nation, and this nation failed. Muslim and Sikh men were targeted by random acts of violence, but they were not even discussed in the public discourse. Muslim students I TAed spoke of the terrible things strangers said to them in the weeks following 9/11, but few seemed to be sticking up for them. The United States immediately moved to a war footing, starting an invasion of Afghanistan that still hasn't ended. Bin Laden wasn't liquidated until ten years later.

The public was distracted by the Bush administration's adventure in Iraq, which a majority erroneously thought was somehow connected to 9/11. The propaganda offensive worked. That war too is an ongoing disaster. The public support for war also ended up giving the Bush administration the validation it needed to engage in systemic torture.

At the end of the Bush administration the last tatters of America's moral authority were gone, and its power in the world fast ebbing out. It was one of the biggest self-owns in the history of the great powers. 9/11 was a test of this country, and it failed that test horrendously.

Donald Trump is another test this country has failed. He came to office without a majority or even a plurality, has behaved like a wannabe despot and the political opposition has done little to reign him in. Children are being put in prison camps but there's hardly a word about it. Sure Democrats won the House back, but Trump's using the Senate to remake the judiciary. That's likely going to prevent any positive political reform for another generation.

The country has managed to survive its failed test eighteen years ago, but this new failure may very well represent a point of no return. Dying empires are not pretty things. I just never thought I'd be living in one. Such is life.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Southern Culture on the Skids, "Camel Walk"

I've been going back to the music of the 90s recently. Some of it's been what I call "feel bad" music that owned the "adult alternative" format late in the decade. Whenever I hear "Adia" by Sarah McLachlan I am instantly transported to driving around the Omaha suburbs in the summer of 1998 feeling glum, an emotion the Omaha suburbs are good at prompting.

To get out of my funk I've also been spinning novelty songs of the time. My favorite of that now dead genre is "Camel Walk" by Southern Culture on the Skids. It is amazing to me that something this weird ever got played on the radio, such is the magic of that brief moment in the early to mid 90s when strange sounds were allowed on the airwaves. "Camel Walk" came out in 1995, and by 1996 the winds were already changing and soon Limp Bizkit would come like a plague upon the land.

It has a retro sound, garage punk combined with surf reverb and a beat straight out of a 1960s B-movie set in the Sahara, all deep country fried. It's deeply strange. The singer starts by asking his lady love if she'll eat a "snack cracker" in her "special outfit," including her "pointy boots." Kinky! The whole song is the sensibility of Joe Bob Briggs' MonsterVision on TNT put into musical form, and considering that I loved old trash entertainment like that, I was well-primed for "Camel Walk."

While the band has this sort of psychedelic hick persona, I've always thought it to be genuine, rather than a mere put-on. Growing up in the country myself, one of the few cheap pleasures to be had was junk food, especially Little Debbie cakes. If there was anyone who could turn that into a fetish, it'd be a fellow hayseed.

So what happened to novelty songs? They've been a big part of popular music, from "Disco Duck" to "They're Coming To Take Me Away." When I first heard "Old Town Road" I thought it was a novelty song, but the audience seems to be taking it straight. The range of what constitutes pop music is narrower than it's ever been in my life. And hey, some of it is pretty good, but I really want it to be inscrutably silly every now and then.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

New School Year's Resolutions

A new school year is upon me, and I still can't get over how school here in the NYC area starts after Labor Day. For that reason I have spent the last two weeks in a constant stage of anticipation almost painful in its intensity. After spending two days on a school camping trip, today was my first full day of classes. As usual it felt like like something unlike most American workers experience. Being a teacher on the first day of school feels like being a sailor leaving port on a long voyage or the first day of baseball season for a manager. Our job may not be year round, but the months we do our job will require the fullest measure of our efforts. While the office drones are writing TPS reports or killing time with their fantasy football team, we are dropped into the lion's den of the classroom. 

For that reason a teacher does not mark January first as the year's beginning, but today instead. Every year brings its unique challenges and joys. Every year ends with sad good-byes and hopefully a sense of accomplishment. To steel myself for the new school year, I have composed some resolutions.

Read books on the train 
I started this last year and stuck with it. On my way to school and home I read books and try to avoid the news or social media. It means I get to school with my mind activated yet relaxed, and I get home without being agitated. I also need to do this because in the evenings on school nights I am so exhausted that I pass out if I try to read a book.

Make use of the post-dinner pause
This is a new one. There is a strange lull in my day that comes after dinner and before the kids are put to bed. A lot of days I end up wasting this time by sprawling out on the couch and going on Twitter. Last year I tried to lean into parenting in these hours, but often my children too need a break. So if I am not being active with them, I resolve to be active on other ways. For example, right now I am writing this blog during the pause!

Keep it moving
I am resolved to avoid drama at all costs. This includes workplace gossip and disputes, but also social media bullshit. Dumb arguments online and resentments in the workplace only lead to wasted emotional energy in bad directions. I already broke this resolution today, I feel like it will be a tough one.

Walk in the door happy
I have been reliably informed that when I get home I can be difficult to deal with. I am going to try extra hard to have a smile on my face at the end of my long days. I'm pretty damn lucky to have my family and I shouldn't take that for granted. I also broke this resolution today.

Music over podcasts
I love podcasts, but I find I listen to them too much during my commute and while prepping at work. They jam too many thoughts in my head, making it harder for me to think and reflect and clear space. Music has always helped me go deeper in my thoughts and provides me with far more joy. I'll reserve podcasts for drives and housework. I've already started doing this, and it's really been healthy. I have also resolved to seek out more new music.

Get more sleep
I resolve this every year, but it's hard for this former night owl to adjust to getting up at 5-5:30 every day. Maybe I'll finally figure it out.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Quitting (A Labor Day Reflection)

Andrew Luck was in the news last week when he abruptly decided to quit being an NFL quarterback. Predictably, a lot of armchair macho men judged him for daring to value his health above their fantasy football teams.

I was happy for him. He's financially secure, why should he destroy his body and mind for the profit of billionaires and the entertainment of others? Although Luck is a millionaire by virtue of his profession, he got to experience one of the greatest thrills the typical American worker ever gets: quitting their job. 

In the modern American workplace the toilers have little leverage and less power. Organized labor gets weaker with each passing year, while the bosses find ways to drive their workers harder with the rallying cry of "efficiency." The film Office Space came out twenty years ago, and the trends it documented have only worsened. That film highlighted what I call "underling fatigue": the accumulated drag of being treated like a peon by people who are no better than you. The one surefire thing a worker can do is to quit, especially when it's inconvenient for their employer. That's certainly what Andrew Luck did.

I quit that way twice. Once was my worst job ever, as a telemarketer one summer in college. I took on part time evening shift hours at the rubber parts factory for a month so that I could quit the telemarketing job and work part time the rest of the summer and still make enough money. My telemarketing bosses were a little shocked to see me go well before summer was out, and it felt good.

The next was leaving my job as an assistant professor. This was the thing I spent seven years in grad school and two years in a "visiting" position fighting to have. It turned out to be a nightmare, but it was the job I was supposed to cherish. Plenty of other people out there still cling to their tenure track jobs, even if they never bring the fulfillment they promise. I decided that my life was meant to be better than that. I have never felt more free than the day I told my chair that I was gone.

Despite the thrill that quitting brings, and the positive changes to life that can come with it, it is a weak power. We all fancy ourselves irreplaceable in our jobs, but we are pretty easy to switch out. I love my current job and have no desire to quit. I also know that they'd be able to get a good teacher to take my place without much fuss.

And that prompts me to remember another time I felt powerful as a worker. It was in grad school when I went on a walkout with my fellow teaching assistants and we picketed the quad. That eventually led to getting a union contract. American workers are stuck having to get their shot at power by telling their boss to take their job and shove it. It'd be far better if they could get it in solidarity with their coworkers creating a workplace that doesn't make them want to quit. In today's climate that seems downright fanciful.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Republicans, Boris Johnson, and "Soft" Authoritarianism

The historical memory of the 20th century has in many ways left us ill-prepared for 21st century threats to democracy. Most people hear "authoritarianism" and think of Hitler and Stalin, one party states, and concentration camps. For this reason anything short of those totalitarian scenarios isn't taken seriously enough. Modern day "soft" authoritarians know this and act accordingly.

Take the Republican Party. From 1992 to the present it has won the plurality of the popular vote in the presidential election only once, in 2004 with the benefit of incumbency. Despite that, a Republican has held the office for three terms in that period. This has been enabled by the electoral college. When Republicans have held the White House they have used their positions to flood the federal bench with young ideologues, altering the interpretation of the law for decades in a direction that is not popular. When Republicans do not hold the White House they do everything they can to deny Democratic presidents their nominees.

Republicans also use gerrymandering and voter suppression to maintain their position despite being unpopular. In Wisconsin a majority voted for Democrats for the state legislature, but gerrymandering produced a majority of Republicans in both houses. That legislature then stripped powers from the newly elected Democratic governor. In multiple states, including my home state of Nebraska, Republican legislators have refused to honor ballot initiatives where clear majorities of voters opted to expand Medicaid.

In this regard Trump is not an outlier, but a regular Republican. As president he has used executive orders to target Muslim immigrants, throw children in prison camps, and fund a border wall without Congressional approval. According to recent reports, Trump is demanding that land be confiscated for his wall, and is dangling pardons for any underlings who fear legal prosecution. By outsourcing work to Fox News, Trump does not appear to have a state-run propaganda machine, but Fox basically fulfills that function.

Fellow nationalist Boris Johnson has also figured out the tricks of soft authoritarianism. He maneuvered to have Theresa May stabbed in the back, able to become prime minister without having to win an election. Johnson, who does not have majority support, has also moved to prorogue parliament in order to force the UK into a very unpopular no-deal Brexit. He is essentially preventing the people from having any kind of voice in the matter.

Because neither Trump nor Johnson are putting tanks in the streets or arresting their opponents, most regular people do not see this as authoritarianism, but it is. It is a smarter authoritarianism attuned to the fact that overt moves to grab power by force won't fly in this day and age. The memory of the last century is a big reason why. However, that memory serves us poorly because we are stuck fighting the last war. Unless we oppose this soft authoritarianism with the vigor it deserves, it won't stay soft much longer.

Monday, August 26, 2019

How "Meetings Day" Sums Up The Worst Of Working In Low-Level Higher Ed

Getting bawled out by jerks in suits is something salespeople and academics have in common

Tomorrow the school year begins for me, like it does for most educators, with a day of meetings. In fact, I will have four days of meetings, although a lot of that time will be with the students I advise and their parents. Those meetings are usually a great way to jump back into the school year. I am not as hot about the school and division-wide meetings we do, but I am generally just not a meetings guy. The administrators at my school do a good job of running them and making them relevant, so it's hard to complain too much. I come out of them feeling like we at least are doing something important with our time.

This is a far cry from my time in higher education. At many universities there is a big "Meetings Day" with sessions at the university, college, and department level. I have been spending the day feeling anxious just remembering those days. The message they tended to impart was that the faculty were peons. When I was a visiting assistant professor I was basically not told to go the meetings, the subtext being that I was "the help" and not welcome in through the front door.

Then I became a tenure track professor and realized that as belittling as it was to not be welcome at university events, having to attend the meetings was actually worse. I started at my job in August of 2008, which meant meetings the following years were full of talk of cutbacks, austerity, and the general message that we should shut up about it because we were all lucky to have a job.

What was surreal was how the austerity talk mingled with the usual administrator bragging over stuff that they built and "initiatives" they were planning. One year we heard about hiring and salary freezes and library cutbacks, but also how the new residence hall would have a big purple beacon on top. Why? Because the old residence hall being torn down had one and it needed to be replaced with a better one. Why? Because the school color was purple, and the beacon would signal that our sports teams had won their match that day to all the yokels in the small East Texas town where we were located.

The president of the school was so pleased to announce this. That year, like every other year, his annual presidential speech was met with a standing ovation after some of the older die hards would admonish the rest of us to join them. It was like something out of a Politburo meeting. At the college level meeting that followed we heard less about building and more about "initiatives." My favorite one is almost too ridiculous to describe. A land developer building a residential complex on a lake in the hill country over a two hundred miles from us wanted to partner with the college to have events there. We were a local university in East Texas and in the midst of having our travel budgets cut professors were being given some kind of time share pitch. I assumed this was some sort of tax dodge, and I could not believe that the dean was actually trying to sell this pile of crap to us. I have a friend from those days and we still get a laugh at the mere mention of it.

The day ended with department-level meetings, which were up and down but usually displayed our disfunction pretty openly. I still remember the time after a meeting I went to lunch with some of my colleagues and two of them joked about committing a violent act against one of their coworkers. (This should have been a clue that they would later backstab me.) Or the time I had to hear someone go off on how the United States needed to start a war with Russia over the crisis in Georgia back in 2008.

The Meetings Day was always the worst way to start the school year. It killed my morale because it made it obvious that me and my work were of little value to the institution that I worked for. Sometimes it also felt like a dark look into the future. Working for a long period of time at a regional state institution in an isolated small town that was never on the list of places you wanted a live takes a toll on your well-being. Every Meetings Day I noticed the two alternatives: to embrace cynicism to the point of calcification (I was already on that road) or to join the cult and to invest in the institution. After all, if you think the place you work for is shit, doesn't that kind of also make you shit too? That was the calculation that the people who stood for the university's president's propaganda speech had made.

I'm glad I chose the forbidden option, to simply leave the whole thing behind. However, on days like this I think about what could have been. My old university was full of a lot of good people. If they had been given the power to run things instead being forced to obey the whims of others, that institution could've been something special. Today I am thinking of all my friends and colleagues still working in the world of low-level higher ed, and hoping against hope that the tide can be turned and that universities will someday be worthy of their faculty and students.